WebGov still suffers delays

After more than a year of work, a project to organize and centralize all federal government information on the Internet is still at least months away from completion.

But the government's intentions to some day launch the mega-site called WebGov has not stopped private companies from moving in, organizing the information themselves and starting their own World Wide Web sites dedicated to smoothing people's Internet dealings with the federal government.

Thomas Freebairn, the director of the General Services Administration's WebGov project, agreed that the project was taking longer than expected. WebGov has "been bouncing around for a long time," Freebairn said in an interview last month.

Vice President Al Gore's National Partnership for Reinventing Government has become involved with the project, said Katie Hirning, head of information technology for NPR and the organization's deputy director. WebGov will be more than a catalog of links to federal Web sites, she said. The idea is to structure the site by topic and service so that if a user needs to find out how, for example, to find a description of Social Security retirement benefits, WebGov will lead the person to the site easily and quickly.

Many existing federal Web sites that organize information from agencies, such as the White House site (www.whitehouse.gov) and the Commerce Department's FedWorld Information Network (www.fedworld.gov), focus more on offering links to agencies than on providing services and topics. From these Web sites, users wanting to find information about Social Security need to know to click on the link to the Social Security Administration and then navigate SSA's Web site. WebGov will streamline access to federal information, Hirning said.

WebGov, which Hirning considers a federal home page instead of an information portal, plans to work with commercial enterprises offering federal Web portals to explore ways that the commercial portals and WebGov could complement one another. At the very least, she said, the portals could direct users to WebGov as a government service.

Freebairn, who took over the WebGov project about four months ago, said the site may be ready for a preview in September. "We need to be careful about when and how we roll out a preview and the full system. We just want to make sure that we are ready to handle the load, and we want to have a good system up when there is a public opening."

Charles McClure, a professor of information science at Florida State University and who is regarded as an expert on federal Web sites, said he's heard that before. "It's like, suddenly, nothing keeps happening with WebGov," he said. "The idea is good, but I'm just tired of it. It's like, so what? Where's the beef?"

He said he hopes the site directs people to specific services and information they need instead of just to Web sites for federal agencies. He also said the site would be almost pointless if it does not come equipped with a powerful search engine that could scour federal Web sites with much more detail and power than current search engines.

In addition to government Web sites that organize federal information, such as FedWorld, the White House site, NPR's site (www.npr.gov) and the Global Information Locator Service (www.gils.net), several commercial sites provide similar services. Yahoo! and America Online, among others, offer areas dedicated to organizing federal information.

The newest such offering, GovSpot (www.govspot.com), offers links to Web sites throughout government; a list of changing "must see" sites; lessons in government, public policy and American history; a Campaign 2000 site with continually updated information about the upcoming elections; and news about the federal government.

GovSpot's creator, Evanston, Ill.-based StartSpot Mediaworks Inc., decided to begin building a government portal site seven months ago because "it appeared to us that there were some wonderful government resources out there but no one place to go find everything," said Stephanie Meismer, a spokeswoman for the company.

Lauren Zollinger, managing editor of GovSpot, described GovSpot as a one-stop bookmark that people will use for tasks ranging from finding the mailing address of the Interior Department to "pointing people towards information that will help them make better decisions" on Election Day, she said. Zollinger said the company invested a lot of time researching government Web sites. StartSpot found several agencies that toyed with putting together comprehensive portal sites, but not "one that nailed it," she said.

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